Developing your entrepreneur chops? Get comfortable with tough feedback

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iStock_000007596141XSmall The first time you get tough feedback as a new entrepreneur, it can really kick you in the gut.

Most of us learn to accept feedback reasonably well working for a big company.  If you are a salesperson and someone hates your product, it may not feel great, but you probably won’t lose sleep over it.

When you work for yourself, any critical feedback about your business can feel like a personal attack.

It will destroy you if you let it.

Gathering up the courage  to leave your corporate job and start a business may feel like your biggest emotional challenge as a new entrepreneur.  Once you leave, it feels euphoric when you see your well-laid plans come to fruition and people actually buy your products or services.  But somewhere down the line, you will be blindsided by some brutal, direct and very tough feedback.

It may come from a customer who is very unhappy with your service.  Or from an employee who tells you what they really think of your management skills.  Or a reviewer that pans your product.

Most people have one of two reactions:  get angry or curl into a fetal position.  Neither will be helpful to you as an entrepreneur, because you have to invite feedback and criticism if you want to grow a viable business.

Here are some ways to handle it:

  1. Don’t be influenced by either side of the feedback pendulum.  Try not to get too excited when people are giving you raving accolades.  In the same vein, try not to get too upset when they give brutal criticism.  You need to have a very clear sense of yourself and remain focused on what your business is and how it will add value to your customers.  If you try to please those that think you are great, you can get paralyzed trying to live up to an impossible standard.  If you try to please your detractors and “fix” what they think is wrong with you, you will come from a place of unworthiness.  Learn from all feedback and keep a steady course towards your long-term vision.
  2. Don’t take things personally.Don Miguel Ruiz wrote an excellent book called The Four Agreements that shares some very simple yet profound wisdom.  One of the key beliefs, or “agreements” as he calls them, is not to take things other people say personally.”Nothing other people do is because of you.  It is because of themselves.  All people live in their own dream, their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in.  When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.” (The Four Agreements, page 48)

    I learned this lesson well.  In the late 90’s, I taught career development classes as a subcontractor for a career development firm at a very high profile technology company in Silicon Valley.  The first time I taught the class, a member of the company’s training and development staff sat in as a participant.  When the evaluations came back at the end of the class, they were all good with the exception of his.  He gave me very low scores, and criticized everything from my use of analogies to the pacing of the class.  I am sure that he would have told me my nose was too big if he didn’t have to sign his name at end of the evaluation.  I felt very sick after reading his comments since I knew it was an important client and I really wanted to do well.  I later heard, however, that he had personally lobbied for a different curriculum to be taught to employees – which he was personally certified in.  His feedback did include some valid criticism that I used to become better in future classes.  I ended up being an extremely highly rated instructor and they became one of my biggest clients.  (As fate would have it, 18 months later I traveled to Europe to teach a class and he was there.  He pulled me aside and asked for career advice.  I considered it sweet payback)

  3. Be a sieve.  Learn how to take in a big piece of tough feedback, sift out the pieces that have some use or truth to them and let the rest flow down the sink. Most feedback has some truth in it that will make you better at what you do.  The easiest way to do this is to ask yourself “What part of this feedback will make me better, more successful in the marketplace and happier at what I do if I apply it?”  Keep that piece of advice and let the rest go.
  4. Be glad you are not a stand-up comicRob Martinez, one of my former teenage martial art students, is now a stand-up comedian.  He spent many years performing in front of small crowds and endured brutal feedback which ranged from heckling from drunk patrons to physical threats from an Oakland Raider football player who was unhappy to be the butt of one of his jokes. Yet despite this, Rob eagerly performs week after week.  “If my material is not working, I just rewrite it until I get something that the audience reacts to.  Each audience is different, so I never know what the reaction will be.” He loves writing and loves comedy, so that is what keeps him going.  On his website, he has a hit counter:  “Official Comedy Competition Wins:  0 Losses:  14”  If he sticks with his craft, he is bound to get better, and who knows, might even pull off a win!
  5. See if the outside critic is reflecting your inner critic.  All of us have inner critics that whisper in our ear when we are trying something new.  “Who do you think you are to run a business?  “You call yourself a writer?”  “Everyone will think I am a slimy salesperson if I try to sell my products or services.”  Most times, we realize that this is just our inner fear talking and move forward anyway.  But sometimes, the exact words our inner critic says come to us in the form of an email from an actual person.  A friend of mine is an accomplished professional.  For a long time, she published a free ezine and provided all kinds of information and resources to her subscriber list.  Even though she knew she was really talented and had a lot to offer, she was very uncomfortable asking for money.  Finally she worked up the courage to create an offering of paid teleclasses and sent out an email announcement.  Almost immediately, one of her subscribers wrote back and asked to be taken off of her list because he felt that she was a “shameless marketer.”  I read the email she sent out and it was professional, compelling, ethical, reasonable and not pushy in the least bit.  Many of her other subscribers thought it was great and happily forked over the money for her program.  She started laughing when she realized that he had just voiced her own worst fears, and once they were out there, she could let go of them.  The universe works in mysterious ways sometimes!
  6. Don’t shoot the messenger, even if you want to. In my brief foray in the blogging world, I have found that some bloggers can be exceptionally direct with their feedback.  Some people are downright mean, and make personal attacks in addition to criticizing your ideas.  If you ever receive a comment like this, your first inclination may be to shoot back a bitchy, profanity-laden response.  Don’t do it.  It will solve nothing to engage with someone who is obviously trying to provoke you.  You many even encourage the person to continue to post personal attacks (or at an extreme, start a campaign to smear your name, something I read about on someones blog – I forget whose)  Punch a pillow, write a nasty response and then delete it, or print out the person’s comment and burn it in a glorious ceremony in your backyard.  Remember, don’t take it personally – if they are attacking you and don’t even know you, it is really about them.  (Ironically, most of the people who leave blistering attacks do not leave a real email address, perhaps to avoid real dialog)
  7. Find ways to be kind, gentle and nurturing to yourself.  Even if you are very strong emotionally, some negative feedback will burrow past your protective armor and pierce you in the gut.  Learn what makes you feel better.  No problem of mine is too big for a heaping bowl of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and a hot bath.  Thankfully I don’t have too many bad days or I would have a serious cholesterol problem and be very clean.  Identify your self-pampering activities and engage in them whenever your inner child wants to cry.

The bigger you choose to play in the world, the more negative criticism you will receive.  If you learn to deal with it gracefully, nothing will stop you from accomplish your goals.

25 Responses to “Developing your entrepreneur chops? Get comfortable with tough feedback”

  1. Hi Vera, I think what Pam means is that sometimes the criticism of your business isn’t really about you. In #2, she gives an example of someone who gave her harsh criticism mostly because his own position and status was under threat. She took the relevant points and discarded the rest.

  2. vera says:

    I hear the “don’t take it personally” motto a lot. But when you live your life from the core of your person, everything is personal.

    What SHOULD we take personally then?

  3. I read a book a while back called: “The Four Agreements”

    Number 2 was: “Don’t Take It Personal”. In business (especially) and in life, don’t take it personal. I try not to (always) and as a result, I feel more stress free.

  4. One really has to develop thick skin if success in business is going to be achieved. People are quick to judge and often fear what they do not understand. Don’t let this bring you down. Stay focused and envision your challenge as a prize fight. You vs. Failure and failure is not an option. Don’t get cocky either. Stay humble and open-minded. Relationships are the key to having long-lasting success. Nurture them and your business will grow with time. Cheers, G.

  5. Latarsha says:

    I’d have to say that your be-a-sieve gave me a new perspective: it’s a matter of evaluating each comment and determining if there is something of value embedded in it that will help make an improvement.

    Thanks for the post!

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  9. Kiss Corporate Life (Good Bye)

    The view over the employee cubes today: CRANKED UP!This blog is about surviving in Co…

  10. Pam,

    I learned in my past as a sales consultant in operating room medical device sales arena that I should get my “emotional needs” met at home and not at work.

    Fortunately I’m learning to do both as I’ve escaped from the cubicle to start my own company.

  11. Grokodile says:

    Nice post. I haven’t risen high enough to be the target of much criticism as of yet, but I have risen and fallen, so some of your insights really ring true.


  12. Mark says:

    Hi there – this blog, and your siren call to liberating workers trapped in discouraging corporate environments, is fantastic and I couldn’t be more excited! I am very heartened by your message and the effect it can have (being a former such employee myself, who is now a teacher and independent filmmaker). Please, *please* keep up the good work! 🙂

    One completely unrelated note: the photo of the young crying girl at the top of this entry gave me pause; call me over-sensitive, but I have a lingering discomfort with using the photo of someone in such distress (even if children do cry a lot) as a kind of “clip art” that brushes over the plight of that individual.

    Okay – end of touchy-feely nit pick. But hey, I’m from the Bay Area too, and if you can like Che, I can feel bad for crying kids in anonymous photos. 🙂

    Cheers and thanks so much again,

    — Mark

  13. Sarah Lipman says:

    This is one of the single most-valuable blog postings I have ever read (I’ve saved a copy in my special file for stuff like that). Thank you!

    A very wise mentor of mine defines “professional” as a person who appreciates you more, the more you tell him how to improve. It certainly helps me keep criticism in the proper perspective: negative feedback helps me achieve great results. (And restores my pride: if I “hear” the criticism, I prove to myself that I am a true professional — professional executive, manager, mother, whatever.)

  14. Pierre says:

    I wish there were an edit feature here though.

  15. Maria Palma says:

    I used to be a very sensitive person…However, I’m growing thicker skin and learning to just brush off negative feedback like dandruff on my shoulder 🙂

    Recently I’ve had some very negative feedback on my blogs, but I know that I can’t please everybody…

    “Ironically, most of the people who leave blistering attacks do not leave a real email address, perhaps to avoid real dialog”

    So true!!

  16. Droopy 2.0 says:

    Savoir prendre des coups quand on est entrepreneur…

    Sur un blog découvert récemment, “Escape from Cubicle Nation”, l’auteure a écrit un petit billet que je trouve très intéressant sur l’art et la manière d’encaisser les premiers retours d’information un peu “durs”, lorsque l’on vient de se lancer dans…

  17. Working Solo says:

    Top Tips for Hearing the Hard Words

    There are times as entrepreneurial business owners when someone won’t love us and our ideas as much as we do. We will have to hear some hard (and at time harsh) words that will leave us feeling like we have

  18. Pam,

    I’m glad to see you have bounced back after that one gut-wrenching moment last week and that you are back to your feisty self!! Times like those, I recall a quote from an O Magazine: “Nothing bad happens to writers; it is all material!” (Must mean there are volumes within me.)

    Keep writing, girl. You are good at it!

  19. I think Shaun in the comments above hit the nail on the head: consider the source. And you’ve highlighted that as well in your article.

    Your experience as a trainer is a great indication of that – the guy wasn’t being objective, he was motivated by something else in giving you lousy reviews.

    Years ago when a customer complained I used to panic. Now I still respond quickly but there’s no more panic (or rarely!) You can’t please everyone all the time…and you have to look out for your own sanity.

  20. Get comfortable with tough feedback

    If you are an entrepreneur, Pamela Slim suggest you get comfortable with tough feedback:
    The first time you get tough feedback as a new entrepreneur, it can really kick you in the gut.
    Most of us learn to accept feedback reasonably well working for …

  21. Pierre says:

    Hi Guy (oops, I mean Pam)
    Whenever a company acts like a jerk, I would send them a link to one of Guy Kawasaki’s bozoity blogs. I’m glad he shared with us your blog as I now have two sources too send them. An some folks take it better (or worse) from a female.

    Great blog (mostly 😉


  22. Good post, Pam.

    Another one is to consider the source and their agenda in providing the feedback. I always try to carefully consider the feedback coming from those I respect and who are genuinely trying to help me improve and then take the rest in stride.

  23. Shaun Orpen says:

    Great post, Pam.

    There are many reasons people will give negative feedback – and let’s not forget that sometimes it’s well deserved.

    I especially like your point about ‘the bigger you choose to play, the more negative feedback…’ etc.

    The art is in weighing up its validity and deciding what (if anything) you’re going to do with the learning you gain from it.

  24. Hi Pam, I recommend the book Non-Violent Communication, by Marshall Rosenberg ( which gives these four ways to respond:
    1. Blame ourselves
    2. Blame others
    3. Identify our own feelings and needs
    4. Identify the feelings and needs that lie behind the negative message given by the other person.


  25. Yikes, you must be reading my mind–and my reviews. You have struck a chord with me. I left a Fortune 500 company after nineteen years to start a leadership training program. When I conducted my first workshop, all of my friends were there and the reviews were kind and gentle. Then reality hit. As I broadened my audience, I started to get some brutal comments. My favorite one went something like this: “Someone should video this guy and make him sit through it as punishment.” Even though the good evaluations outnumbered the bad by ninety-nine to one, that 1 percent kept me awake at nights. Then I started talking to other trainers, and other public presenters like pastors and teachers. They shared their worst evaluation stories and made me see that my bad reviews are less about me than they are about the reviewers. I’m now able to learn from the remarks without considering myself a failure–but it wasn’t easy at first. Thanks for your great post!